By Jim Wyatt | The Tennessean
Mike Munchak tried the politically correct route, hoping to disconnect from the persistent rumors linking him to Penn State without insulting his alma mater.
On Wednesday, however, the Titans coach was left with no choice. With speculation intensifying in his home state, and his team to trying to focus on its quest for a playoff spot, Munchak had to make himself clear.
He's staying in the NFL, he said.
"I love my alma mater, but I have no interest in being the head coach at Penn State. I never want to leave Tennessee," Munchak told The Tennessean. "I have a great deal of respect for Penn State, and I hope they find a great coach there. But I am happy where I'm at.
"It is not like I'm saying I want nothing to do with Penn State. My point is I have no interest in being the head coach there."
Later he made similar statements to a group of reporters after practice, where the Titans started on-field preparations for Sunday's game against the Texans.
The Titans (8-7) need to beat the Texans (10-5), and get some help from other teams, in order to advance to the playoffs. The last thing his team needs this week is a mammoth distraction.
Munchak aired his feelings just a few hours after several outlets in Pennsylvania reported he remained on atop the wish list to replace the fired Joe Paterno.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported a search panel in charge of finding Paterno's successor had targeted Munchak. Another outlet speculated Munchak-to-Penn State was a done deal, with the only holdup being the fact the Titans' regular season is still ongoing.
Munchak, however, said he hasn't talked to anyone on the panel, or anyone associated with the school, about the coaching search. Former teammates have reached out to him, he said, but that's it.
No one has talked to Penn State on his behalf, said Munchak, who does not have an agent.
Paterno, 85, was fired Nov. 9 in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The search panel, which has been active since the end of November, has not issued any comment.
"There are so many rumors floating around about who is going to be the next coach everywhere. ... There is so much going on and I don't want that to be a distraction," Munchak said. "I am set where I am at. I am thrilled with what I am doing. I am not interested in the Penn State job.
"I am interested in what happens there, and I don't want to distance myself from Penn State. But as far as the head coaching deal, I am. I would love to be involved in my alma mater. My point is I have no interest in being the head coach there."
Munchak played at Penn State under Paterno from 1978-81 and went on to a Hall of Fame career in the NFL as a guard for the Houston Oilers.
After 17 years as an assistant coach for the Oilers and Titans, Munchak was named head coach in February, replacing Jeff Fisher. He has a three-year contract.
Munchak said he realized when he took the head coaching job there would be times he'd have to address speculation. He understood how he was linked to Penn State, he said, but was surprised the speculation caught fire.
Several Titans admitted they couldn't ignore the reports out of Pennsylvania, even as they tried to focus on Sunday's game.
Wide receiver Nate Washington said "my heart was kind of beating" after he saw Munchak's name attached to the Penn State search on the ESPN ticker.
"I am happy he's here," Washington said. "He is leading us down the right path, and I am happy he's not going anywhere."
Fullback Ahmard Hall was driving to work when he heard the subject being discussed on radio.
"It is big for Munch to squash that. You don't need those types of distractions," Hall said. "Munch, he always told us he had a goal coming in. He played for this organization, he is a Hall of Famer for this organization and he got with Mr. Adams and said he wanted to win a Super Bowl for this organization as a head coach. He wants to stay loyal to his word and do that."
With a smile, Munchak said he enjoyed his time at Penn State and said that he's willing to help the school if it needs his advice.
After spending the past 30 years of his life in the NFL, however, he said he couldn't imagine what it would be like coaching at the college level.
So he doesn't. He said his attention is on the Texans.
"Penn State means a lot to me. I am flattered that people think I would be a great fit to coach there," Munchak said. "But I am happy with what we are doing here. Hopefully we'll finish up with a very strong win this weekend and give ourselves a chance to make the playoffs.
"That is what I am thinking about and excited about, and it is unfortunate it came up this week because obviously I don't want the focus taken away from what we're trying to do as a team."